One of the questions I posed in the recent Decentered Media Podcast on AM Radio, was what do we do with the spare capacity made available on Medium Wave, as more stations are shifted onto DAB and other digital platforms?
The BBC is in the process of turning off many of its local AM transmitters, as part of a long-standing process of the elimination of duplicated services. As reported in Radio Today in 2021, Kieran Clifton, Director, BBC Distribution & Business Development said, “a large and increasing share of radio listening in the UK – including to the BBC – is digital, and the BBC is committed to a digital future for radio.”
According to Kieran, in recent years the BBC has “made significant investment in local DAB expansion, all of our local radio stations are available on digital terrestrial TV (such as Freeview), and we have transformed our online and mobile offering with BBC Sounds.”
Just announced in the BBC’s Annual Plan for 2022/23, is the news that the BBC is paving the way for more of its analogue radio services to be transitioned to digital only platforms, starting with the shut-down of the BBC’s AM services. The plan states
“Following the publishing of the government’s Digital Radio and Audio Review last year, we will begin developing plans for the closure of Medium Wave over the coming years in line with the Review recommendations, as well as working with the sector to deliver other recommendations from the Review” (p28).
The rationale for this shutdown of the BBC’s AM services is explained in relation to changes in audience behaviour, which includes significant shifts from “linear to on-demand” content, and an increasingly mixed network approach that is going to focus on the development of a commissioning process that brings together broadcast platform with “on-demand speech audio content.”
The BBC’s aim is to develop more content that “audiences can enjoy either live or on-demand,” which will “prioritise clarity and relevance across [their] network portfolio, in an audio market where there is more choice and competition than ever.” The BBC hope that this will enable them to “reach and retain lighter listeners who are currently getting less value from the BBC.”
The BBC views content development increasingly as a process of ‘curation’ across platforms that “amplify the unique power of live audio across music, breaking news, live sport and major events, creating shared moments that provide companionship and community for audiences” (p28). This means the BBC is increasingly focussing on BBC Sounds as the “best place for audiences to listen to BBC audio content.” Which means improving access to audio content via “smart speakers, on the go via mobile devices, or via connected devices in the car.”
Curated content isn’t restricted by the legacy linear delivery methods, as is the case with analogue and digital broadcast radio, and so content delivery in the digital age is likely to be personalised, curated and accessed based on relevancy searches. BBC Sounds is envisioned as a way for audiences to “discover relevant content for any listening occasion, including surfacing more locally relevant content.”
The shift from thinking about ‘radio’ to ‘audio’ content has been underway for some time. It’s more likely, according to the BBC, that we will want to access programme and music content according to our mood, or by the genre, artist or theme. The BBC is shifting, therefore, to audio content delivery models that are more suited to “on-demand listening first on BBC Sounds,” with a focus on podcast publishing, rather than programme sequencing, as radio presently demands.
My question, therefore, is what’s going to happen with the AM radio spectrum that is being freed as more international and national services are transitioning to alternative digital platforms? Is there still a role for AM radio? I don’t think that is clear that listeners are willing to make the complete transition from analogue to one hundred percent digital media? I’m concerned that our media policy and regulation has been captured in a hype-loop, where perfectly viable alternative broadcast platforms are being squeezed unnecessarily, which becomes self-reinforcing when listeners pick up on a sense of abandonment and a lack of care for the medium.
I have my doubts about the digital switch-over strategy that is informing this approach, which is something I mentioned recently when I gave evidence to the House of Lords Committee on Communication and Digital, who are examining the future of the BBC. I asked the question, what services do we invest in and why? Where should public subsidy go when providing universal services, and what do we do for those potential broadcasters who want to operate outside the orbit of the BBC and the large commercial media conglomerates?
Surely, we need a pluralistic approach to spectrum management, that allows many different models of broadcasting and content delivery to co-exist. Why should the state be forcing people to shift from one media platform to another? The government doesn’t dictate what music formats we buy, and while streaming is very popular, we don’t force people to sign up to a music streaming service? And if you hadn’t noticed, there has been a resurgence of the sale of vinyl records, despite being a supposedly inferior analogue product.
In my view, the same principle of consumer choice should be applied to radio. We have entered an age where spectrum scarcity is no longer the same issue for radio and audio content that it once was. We can choose to listen to content from around the world via IP radio, streaming services, podcasts and so on – if we want and can afford to do this. One essential thing that we need to avoid, in my view, is imposing a digital tax on radio listeners who don’t want to switch to these platforms and devices. We should be able to access valued and meaningful radio services across all platforms, if not nationally, then definitely locally.
So as large-scale broadcasters come off the analogue radio spectrum, surely, it makes sense to open up the marketplace for local commercial and community broadcasters, such as those who believe they can find a sustainable local audience on these frequencies? This would be a more efficient use of the available spectrum, and would enhance choice for consumers rather than restricting it.